Restaurants under fire for discrimination re-examine dress code policies: 'We are disappointed in ourselves'

Yahoo Life
Restaurants are rethinking dress code policies that many claim discriminate. (Photo: Getty Images)
Restaurants are rethinking dress code policies that many claim discriminate. (Photo: Getty Images)

A restaurant that refused to seat a Black mother and son for an alleged dress code violation apologized for the “disturbing” and “eye-opening” experience. Now, the Maryland eatery is one of many reckoning with stiff and outdated wardrobe rules now under renewed scrutiny amid the Black Lives Matter movement and protests for racial equity.

On Monday, Marcia Grant and her 9-year-old son were denied service at Ouzo Bay in Baltimore for the boy’s outfit — a pair of shorts and an Air Jordan T-shirt — as explained by an employee in the mom’s viral Facebook video. “So unfortunately we do have a dress code,” he said. “If you have some non-athletic shorts...”

When the mother pointed to a young boy inside the restaurant wearing a similar outfit to her son, the employee insisted, “We allow tennis shoes but not athletic shorts and a T-shirt,” he answered. “...I’m sorry I would love for you to be able to come back and eat here.”

Grant did not immediately reply to Yahoo Life’s request for comment but representatives of Atlas Restaurant Group, which owns Ouzo Bay, sent Yahoo Life a statement saying it stands “against all forms of racism and believe Black lives matter.”

Video: Maryland Mom Says Restaurant Denied Service Because Her Family’s Black

“...Within the past 24 hours, we were made aware of a disturbing incident that occurred over the weekend at one of our Baltimore restaurants in which a Black mother, Marcia Grant, and her son were denied service for wearing clothing that did not adhere to our dress code,” the business said in the statement. “A video of the incident also shows a Caucasian youth, dressed similarly, who was permitted to dine in the restaurant. We are sickened by this incident and we sincerely apologize to Marcia Grant, her son and everyone impacted by this painful experience. They deserved better.”

The group said that two managers involved “have been separated from and are no longer with the organization” and the dress policy no longer applies to children 12 and under who are accompanied by an adult. “...Again, we want to extend our sincerest, heartfelt apology. We don’t want anyone to go through this type of embarrassing and hurtful experience.”

“What took place was not only disturbing,” elaborated the statement, “it was also eye-opening, and we are committed to learning from it and implementing real change as a result....” Another version was posted to the brand’s Twitter page.

Restaurant dress codes define what consumers can or can’t wear, in order to create or enhance a particular image or environment. While the parameters differ (casual, business casual, formal or codes that ban specific articles of clothing), according to historian Deirdre Clemente, an associate director of the public history program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, they serve to exclude, intentionally or not. “Restaurants are private institutions that traffic in unique experiences,” she tells Yahoo Life. “They act as gatekeepers with the cultural authority to draw a line between themselves and the outside world.”

For years, people have protested restaurant dress codes, in part for policies that allegedly discriminate, and amid the accelerated Black Lives Matter movement, it appears that management is listening.

The Woolworth in Birmingham, Alabama, said it removed its dress code policy in its June 16 social media post which read, “Birmingham — we’re sorry. As you pointed out, our dress code was lousy. We’ve removed it...we are disappointed in ourselves for creating a policy that offends our fellow Birminghamians and makes them feel unwelcome and we appreciate you calling out our failure.”

It also promised “to find a nondiscriminatory way to ensure a sophisticated experience for our customers.”
Co-owner Hunter Renfroe tells Yahoo Life in a statement, “Our mission at The Woolworth is to be a social house where all Birminghamians feel welcome and invited to join in the fun. Our policies are designed to promote a sophisticated experience. We do not tolerate racism under any circumstance and we are taking appropriate actions to ensure we are cultivating a safe, inclusive, and welcoming environment at The Woolworth.”

Surf City Bar and Restaurant in New Jersey also shared on Instagram that it abandoned its dress code while alluding to the Black Lives Matter protests. The restaurant’s June 10 Facebook post did not mention the reason for the change or what the previous dress code was but stated “we have made mistakes. We are listening and always learning.”

The Jersey City restaurant had come under fire following a June 5 Facebook post by a woman who said she applied for a restaurant job and was told, "The demographic shift that happened at [restaurant], we can't have that here. We have a dress code, we enforce it. We don't serve certain liquors here. Do you get it?" 

In an interview with Fox News, Surf City manager John Argento said the owner was not present at the restaurant that day and that the dress code applies to everyone. “We’ve been here 22 years. We’ve never discriminated against anyone when hiring,” he told Fox News. “This woman who was not called back is the only one making these statements.”

Of the dress requirements, Argento told Fox News: “It’s a funky beach vibe during the day, and then a more dressed-up feel at night.” 

Yahoo Life could not reach the job applicant or Surf City representative for comment.

“Dress codes are a way of regulating bodies in particular spaces, so that those same bodies conform to a standard set by those in power — whether it's the restaurant owner or the school board,” fashion anthropologist Denise N. Green, assistant professor of fiber science and apparel design at Cornell University and director of the university’s fashion and textile collection, tells Yahoo Life. “These standards have been produced by, and ultimately reflect, discriminatory attitudes along the lines of race, gender, body size, class and other aspects of appearance.”

Clemente agrees. “Racism is so built into the concept of dress codes that to dissect [the ‘why’] is nearly impossible,” she tells Yahoo Life. “[Historically], they ensured that people acted and looked white.”

Restaurant dress codes were largely unwritten and presumptive during the 1930s and 1940s, she says, until fashion offered more options and trends became more commonplace.

Clemente says a cultural yearning to celebrate individuality and lifestyle and to differentiate from “the elite” pushed dress codes out of public favor, yet restaurants (and schools and workplaces) grasped at tradition. “It’s an outdated way of looking at commerce and consumerism,” she adds.

But social media is turning tradition on its head. Decades ago, says Clemente, a woman rejected from a restaurant for wearing a pantsuit instead of a dress would have simply found somewhere else to eat.

According to Green, restaurant dress codes could die down as businesses recognize the value of inclusivity. “I’d like to think that restaurants are dismantling dress codes as a larger project on anti-racist work,” she says, “but realistically, in a capitalist society, it might be for the bottom line.”

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